Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

Leovigild and His Sons

After Athanagild's death, five months passed before the Goths could agree on the choice of his successor. The dispute, however, was settled without an appeal to the sword. The Gothic parties had learned to dread the danger of civil war, and the different Spanish cities, by way of compromise, withdrew their respective candidates, and agreed to choose a king from Gothic Gaul, now the least influential part of the kingdom. The new king Leuva (Liuba) was a quiet, unambitious man, of whom we hear neither good nor evil, only that he handed over the government of Spain to his brother Leovigild (Liobagilths), preferring for his own part to remain at Narbonne, which thus became for a short space once more the Visigoth capital. In the third year of his reign he died, leaving the kingdom to his brother.

Leovigild was in many ways one of the greatest kings of his time. A bold and skillful general, he subdued the kingdom of the Sueves in the northwest of Spain, wrested from the emperor's soldiers several of the cities which they had occupied, and brought the native inhabitants of the peninsula into complete subjection. He built fortresses and founded cities, established a new system of administration of the kingdom, and made many new laws suited to the altered needs of his people. It was under his firm rule that the Goths and the Romanised natives were taught to feel themselves to be the fellow subjects of one kingdom, and so the process began which ended in the complete blending of the two peoples into one.

In the splendour and magnificence of his court, Leovigild far surpassed all his predecessors. He was the first Visigoth king who sat on a raised throne in the assembly of the nobles, and who placed on his coins his own likeness wearing a crown. It will be remembered that Southey, in his poem of "Roderick," in the complete blending speaks of

"The golden pome, the proud array, Of ermine, aureate vests, and jewelry, With all which Leovigild for after kings Left, ostentatious of his power."

The name of Leovigild, however, is best known on account of the tragic story of the rebellion of his eldest son Ermenegild, honoured in later ages as a saint and martyr of the Catholic Church. The cause of trouble was, in this instance as in so many others in Visigoth history, a Frankish marriage. The bride whom Leovigild obtained for his son was Ingunthis, the young daughter of Sigebert and Brunihild, and the wedding was celebrated in Toledo with the splendid ostentation of which the king was so fond. Ermenegild had already received from his father a share in the kingly dignity, and Leovigild hoped that the marriage with a Frankish princess would help to ensure his son's succession to the crown.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley


But the young daughter of Brunihild belonged of course to the Catholic faith; and Queen Goiswintha (the widow of Athanagild, whom Leovigild had married) was a bigoted Arian. The Frankish historian, Gregory of Tours, tells the story that Goiswintha dragged Ingunthis to the ground by her hair, beat her cruelly, and then forced her to undergo baptism by an Arian priest. Very likely this is pure fiction, but it seems to be true that Queen Goiswintha and her daughter-in-law quarreled so much that Leovigild, for the sake of peace, was glad to send his son to Seville as ruler of Southern Spain.

Soon afterwards, Ermenegild was persuaded by his wife and his uncle Leander, the Catholic bishop of Seville, to forsake the Church of his fathers. His conversion to the Catholic faith bore no good fruits; he made common cause with the remnant of the imperial army, and headed a rebellion for the purpose of wresting the kingdom out of the hands of his heretic father.

Leovigild tried in vain by entreaties to bring his favourite son to a sense of filial duty. Ermenegild, whether it was through fanaticism or ambition, refused to listen to any of his proposals, and the king was compelled to take up arms for the recovery of his revolted provinces. Before long Ermenegild was shut up in Seville. The siege lasted for two years; at length the city was taken, after the defenders had suffered terribly from famine. The prince escaped to Cordova, but his faithless friends from Constantinople betrayed him to his father for a bribe. Taking refuge in a neighbouring church, he sent to implore Leovigild's mercy. He received a solemn promise that his life should be spared, and then ventured to leave his place of refuge, and threw himself at his father's feet. Leovigild burst into tears, and clasped his son in his arms. But he felt that Ermenegild could no longer be trusted with any share in the government, and he ordered him to lay aside the royal robes, and to take up his abode in Valencia as a private person.

A year had not passed, however, when Leovigild heard that his son had broken his promise to remain at Valencia, and was making his way to Gaul. Before setting out he had placed his wife under the care of the enemies of his country, the Greek officers from Constantinople; and it seems to have been his purpose to get the Franks to help him in another effort to dethrone his father. He was captured at Tarragona by Leovigild's soldiers and thrown into prison. It is related that he was visited in his dungeon time after time by messengers from his father, promising him freedom and restoration to his royal honours if he would only consent to abandon his new faith. But his steadfastness was not to be shaken either by promise or threats. At last, an Arian bishop, who was sent to administer to him the Eucharist, brought back word that Ermenegild had received him with gross insults, calling him the servant of the devil. Transported with passion, Leovigild commanded that his son should be put to death. The sentence was swiftly carried out: an executioner was sent to the prison, and the rebellious prince was killed by a blow with an axe, without any pretense of trial.

It is a repulsive story. On one side, we see a son making war against his father on the professed ground of his duty to the Church; and on the other side, we see a father commanding the murder of his son. The Catholics of Ermenegild's own time and country, to do them justice, seem generally to have regarded his rebellion as a crime. But in later ages, when the circumstances were partly forgotten, his wicked conduct was extolled as an act of the noblest Christian virtue, and his name was placed in the calendar as that of a saint and martyr.

The widowed Ingunthis was treated by the emperor's officers more like a prisoner than a guest, and she tried to make her escape to her relatives in Gaul. She was overtaken in her flight, and with her infant son Athanagild was placed on board a vessel for Constantinople. Ingunthis died on the journey, but her son was delivered into the hands of the emperor, at whose court he remained while he lived. This is the last we hear of any interference of the eastern emperors with the affairs of Gothic Spain.

It is not wonderful that after his son's rebellion Leovigild regarded the Catholic Church as a danger to the State, and that he did some things which are complained of as persecution. But the stories are greatly exaggerated. He did banish several bishops but it is not true that any Catholic suffered martyrdom, in his reign. Leovigild was so far from being a bigot that he was often accused of hypocrisy because he paid religious honour to the shrines of orthodox as well as heretic saints. He soon found that harsh treatment of the heads of their Church was not the way to win over his Catholic subjects; and he tried to effect his object by gentler means. He persuaded the Arian clergy to consent that converted Catholics should be received into their Church without being baptized afresh, and to state the articles of their faith in such a way as to make the differences between them and the orthodox appear as small as possible. The result was that large numbers of Catholics professed to accept the king's religion. But the Arians were still a small minority, and their attachment to their creed was feeble, while the zeal of the Catholics grew daily more and more intense. It was plain that it would be hard for a heretic sovereign to hold the throne of Spain; and when the great king died (in 587) men believed that a great struggle was at hand, which would end only in the overthrow of the Gothic rule.

[Illustration] from The Goths by Henry Bradley